Orange Is the New Black: Can a Women-in-Prison Sitcom Succeed?


“What happened to your hair?”

“I had to give it to a transvestite so she could make a weave.”

Yes, these are the kinds of dialogues you have when you spend time in prison, or at least that’s what Netflix tells us.

Prison. The Big House.  This is the setting for Netflix’s newest original series, Orange Is the New Black. Who cares about vampires anymore? We want prison shows! Piper Chapman is the main character—a reformed, wealthy blonde whose past catches up with her. That “past” being her former lesbian lover (played by the actress who portrayed “Donna” in That ’70s Show) who snitches on her for her involvement with an international drug cartel.

Piper and her fiancé (played by Jason Biggs of American Pie fame) decide that she should just surrender and serve the 15-month prison sentence. This is where all hell breaks loose.

Imagine an ex-sorority girl going to the wasteland that is prison: full of foot fungus, delusional inmates, sleazy guards, and, worst of all, ORANGE jumpsuits. This is the world Piper must enter for 15 months. As an audience member, you’re secretly terrified for her.

I watched the first three episodes this weekend. Between cups of water and stops to grab snacks, I attempted to explain to my roommate what I was watching. “There’s this transvestite and he—no, she—she?  Was a NYC firefighter and then he? got a sex change, but now she’s in prison with Piper. This other woman is related to the Russian mafia. … Piper smuggled money for her ex-girlfriend’s drug ring in Brussels ten years prior to her being arrested. … There’s this crazy woman in there too…”

You can imagine the mix of confusion and interest.

I was thinking later, how do I even explain this show to people? It’s especially hard because I don’t have much in common with the main character.  For starters, 1) I’m not a transvestite, 2) I’m not a lesbian, 3) I have never been locked up or taken to jail—although there was this time in college when four cop cars showed up… (another story) and 4) I don’t engage in illegal activities that would lead to my interaction with unsavory characters.


Essentially, I am as out of place watching this show as Piper is in prison: a suburban girl out of her element.  However, this is the point. Like my roommate pointed out, this show wasn’t made for the type of people you see in the show—aka prison inmates, criminals, or tough girls. It was made for people like me—fairly normal, pajama-clad, Netflix-watching women.  So what makes this show interesting, enjoyable—and even relate-able?  High five, Netflix. You might have another hit on your hands.

Interesting: It’s a new and different flavor on the TV show platter

I’m tired of shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, Housewives of XYZ County, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo targeting the female contingent. So brainless, catty, and yuck…

Orange Is the new Black is a different breed of show for females—it depicts life in the big house for a middle-class girl guilty of a white-collar crime.  It doesn’t feel like a reality show or a “wanna-be” reality show.  It is funny — but not like Scrubs-funny. The show almost feels like a documentary — but with some comedic elements.  It’s a new breed of TV — and I’m still figuring out its distinct flavor.

Relate-able: Convicts are People Too

Yes, this show portrays convicted female criminals in prison, but you still identify with them and their struggles.  Piper just wants to survive the cruelty of other inmates. Morello wants to be free and marry her fiancé. And Sophia just wants to continue her journey to feeling “complete” as a woman — without being harassed by the guards.

In addition to giving us information on Piper, the show uses an ingenious way of showing the back stories of some of the other incarcerated characters — you almost aren’t sure who is going to be a main character and who is just a supporting voice. As more and more information is leaked about these tough, jumpsuit-wearing women, the more sympathy you feel towards them. They are similar to you.

Enjoyable: A source of great one-liners

Like the two sentences of dialogue that kicked off this piece, each episode is chock-full of hilarious one-liners delivered by stone-cold weirdos. Ranging from ridiculous dialogues on the connection between cherry pie and prison wives to bobble-head eating prisoners and hormone pills, the timing of the comic relief is almost perfect—and you’ll be chuckling out loud.

Piper goes from annoying prison-newbie to hilarious survivor — and her one-liners keep you coming back (and cheering) for more. Oh, did I mention that Piper’s ex-lesbian lover who snitched on her is also in the same prison?  It just got real…

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